LAURA SULLIVAN, host: Military camouflage first appeared in World War II, and since then, the pattern of green-and-brown swirls and patches has evolved. The idea is to make soldiers stealthier in combat, in a Vietnam jungle or in an Iraqi desert. But it hasn't always been done well.
When Guy Cramer saw the uniforms of the Canadian army cooked up in the late '90s, he thought: I could do that a lot better - and, apparently, he did. His patterns are now worn by more than a million soldiers worldwide. He's got contracts with the U.S., Canada, Jordan and now Afghanistan, among others.
If you wear camo, does it make a difference? Does the design matter? We want to hear from those of you in the military. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Guy Cramer joins us from the studios of the CBC in Vancouver. He's the president and CEO of HyperStealth Biotechnology Corporation, and he was featured in the July-August issue of the Atlantic. Nice to have you with us, Guy.
GUY CRAMER: Thanks for having me.
SULLIVAN: So what was so wrong with the Canadian army uniform?
CRAMER: The first time I looked at it, I had assumed that they'd taken a piece of graph paper and colored in a number of squares in four different colors. And I heard that it had cost them millions of dollars and years of research to come up with this design. And as a taxpayer, I was quite upset by the amount of money spent on this very simple design.
And so I quickly, within a couple of hours and a $100 graphics program, had improved on what they had done and posted this up on the Internet, just to talk about what I felt was government overspending. And within the next couple of months, I was contacted by the Kingdom of Jordan, a military representative for King Abdullah. And very shortly after that, they had asked me to develop their pattern based on what they had seen.
And they knew full well going in that this was not my profession or my expertise, but they liked what they saw. And so I quickly gave myself a crash course in military camouflage and the previous research that had been done on it. And I brought with me my background in science. My grandfather, Donald L. Hings, invented the Walkie-Talkie in World War II for the Canadian military. He had 56 different electronic patents to his name, and...
CRAMER: ...I was his apprentice for about six years. So from age 18, he had basically taught me everything that he knew, and then basically kicked me out of the nest and said, go find something you can take your knowledge and expand into. And camouflage is - has been it for me.
SULLIVAN: It's - and it's certainly worked out with the number of contracts and designs that you have now created. What is so different about what you did and what you do in your designs now compared to the camouflage of 10 years ago?
CRAMER: Well, early on in the research side of coming up with Jordan's camouflage, I had read that fractals - which are repeating geometric shapes found in nature - would be the ultimate camouflage to put into a camouflage pattern. These are patterns that your brain and subconscious identify, catalog. And then the next time you go into that environment, it ignores all these typical shapes that it sees in the background.
And so if you can incorporate those shapes in that environment, you're going to have the adversary glance over your particular camouflage over one of the previous existing camouflages. And so I was able to actually create algorithms within the program. So the programs that we use are very specialized with our company that'll bring in these fractals. And we've now got, I think, 13 different algorithms that we can factor into any particular pattern to come up with a better pattern over what we had previously done.
SULLIVAN: A small correction I have to make here. Earlier, I said that camouflage first appeared in World War II. And as just about everybody who wears camouflage or is in the military knows, I meant to say World War I. When you try to get people to blend into the background, that's sort - that's somewhat of a different concept than what - the way they used to do it. Before, it was just - to have someone standing right in front of you and just to have them disappear, which is almost impossible. But you're saying what you want to do is make it so that their peripheral vision, the people will just melt away.
CRAMER: Both peripheral and the focal part of the vision. So there's two different parts of the human vision that we're trying to defeat. And the new digital camouflage, what the Canadians had come up with that I had thought was so simple - and it was actually the U.S. Army that had come up with the idea of the squares in camouflage in the late '70s and the early '80s. It just couldn't get over the hurdle of people looking at this very artificial looking pattern and assuming that it would work better than the typical blobs that they were using in the background.
SULLIVAN: And it in fact does though. It does. Even though you would think that blobs look more like a forest or a desert, in fact they don't. Pixelated little dots and figures work better.
CRAMER: Yes. And there's been numerous people out there with very loud voices who say that this is a trend and a fad. And we know from objective research that it's not. It does work better. It just needs to be done correctly. And there's been a lot of bad work out there. There's been a lot of bad work out there. There's been a lot of copycat artists out there that are trying to do the same thing, and yet they have no knowledge of camouflage.
And so, what we're constantly fighting is urban legends out there regarding camouflage, subjective studies that don't really give you the proper conclusions on which camouflage works best and which doesn't. And we actually have all that research. Much of it is proprietary confidential. Some of it is even classified. And we don't discuss that. We don't want the bad guys knowing how to do it. We don't want our competitors knowing how to do it properly.
SULLIVAN: But you do tests, is what you're saying.
CRAMER: Oh, yes. And we do objective testing, testing that's been approved by the U.S. military.
SULLIVAN: Hmm. Well, let's go to David in Portland, Oregon. Welcome to the program.
DAVID: Hi. Thank you.
SULLIVAN: Sure. You're on the air. Go ahead.
DAVID: Oh, okay. Well, I was just listening. And I agree that textures are what is needed for proper camouflage - color and shape don't really matter. I mean, you can have a completely tan(ph) blank slate. And the texture that you add to that through pixels and whatnot, that's where the camouflage actually matters.
SULLIVAN: Ah, David. So what do you think of - David, thank you so much for your call. What do you think of that, Guy? Do you think that it is something - what he's talking - I think he means like a three-dimensional kind of - he doesn't actually mean that there's texture in the fabric, but it might appear to be more texturized in the design.
CRAMER: Yeah. You can - when you design camouflage, you can put the appearance of three-dimensional backgrounds within the camouflage itself. The actual, what we call the macro pattern, the larger portion of the camouflage, is to defeat the ambient vision, so the side portion, anything outside of the focal area. And the digital doesn't come into play in that aspect. And it's only when something has caught the - that part of the eye, that the focal vision comes onto play, does the digital actually defeat the focal part, if it's been done correctly.
SULLIVAN: Oh, interesting. So right now the Pentagon has issued a request for proposals for new patterns. They want to switch it up a bit. And I'm assuming you're going to put in a bid. What's the competition going to be like?
CRAMER: Well, we have put in a bid and the Army is currently testing it. There's not a lot I can say about it because it is a current solicitation out there. But I can tell you the background of what the Army has put out there. They're looking for three separate patterns: one is woodland jungle, one is transitional and one is desert arid. So the transitional was an in-between pattern. And then they've asked for a fourth pattern which would be for their gear, which is typically made on more expensive material.
And they want that particular gear pattern to be able to work on all three other patterns. And that comes down to cost effectiveness. This is something that they have looked at their current camouflage with the U.S. Army. They have found it lacking in its ability to effectively conceal the soldier in the current and expected areas where the Army may be fielded in the future. And it - the current one that the U.S. Army is using is not even under consideration for this new program that the Army has in place.
SULLIVAN: What do you mean by that that? I mean that seems like the U.S. Army would want the camouflage to match where they anticipate it being used.
Well, they do, and that's why they've come out with this new solicitation. But the one that they're currently using was meant as an all terrain to work in all environments. And they found through the research that it doesn't work in any of the environments that they've tested it in. It actually performed so poorly, it was in the bottom 10 of the four backgrounds that they tested it in.
I mean, it seems like it would be very difficult to come with a standard - to come up with a standardized camouflage, because our military is stationed all over the world and no one place looks like another.
CRAMER: Well, it is, and there are limitations in the way they put forward this solicitation for the design parameters. We need - they're looking for something that will identify a U.S. soldier. So the desert and the woodland patterns and the transitional all need to look very similar in the pattern makeup. The colors can change. But that's a limitation that we don't like working with because we can do a better job if we don't have those handcuffs on when we're designing. Desert environment takes different parameters to come up with the most effective design out there. So there's always limitations in all programs that we deal with out there. No country is the same as another one with what they require. Some - often they're looking for something that looks very similar to what they previously wore. In the case of Afghanistan, they were looking for something different than what all the coalition troops were using out there. It became very dangerous if they would match those coalition troops.
And so their camouflage may not be very effective in the daytime there. But at the time when the solicitation came out, most of the combat by the Afghan National Army was being done at nighttime. And so they wanted something that was very effective at night. And the camouflage that they're using now, called our Spec4ce Forest Pattern, actually has a range of about five yards at nighttime without night vision goggles. It blends right in with the background. And so it does offer them some protection in the day. And now, of course, they're taking over for security throughout the country. It may be something that they have to reconsider, the coloration that they've used, because they're now fighting in both day and night.
SULLIVAN: Both. We're talking with Guy Cramer. He's president and CEO of HyperStealth Biotechnology Corporation. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's take a listen to one of our callers. We have Jay from Wasilla, Arkansas. Welcome to the program.
JAY: No. Wasilla, Alaska, is where.
SULLIVAN: Oh, Alaska. I apologize.
JAY: Yeah. And you're a little wrong about when we started using camouflage. If you remember in the Revolutionary War, Rogers' Rangers wore green to blend into the surroundings.
SULLIVAN: That's actually an excellent point. That's a very good point.
JAY: I was in Air Force Air National Guard when General McPeak decreed that all Air Force personnel would wear camouflage. Well, it went from $6 a uniform to $60 for a uniform for this camo. And this was for people that were working on Air Force flight lines. They were working behind the lines, so to speak. And you know, everybody, you know, now wears camo - but with these expensive uniforms. But there's really - how many people actually need camo to work, you know, to be a frontline soldier?
SULLIVAN: Jay, thank you so much for the call. Let's bring that question to Guy. What Jay is saying is that this is really expensive. Can we actually do this for everybody?
CRAMER: It is. And I'm not the one who makes that decision out there. My job is design, and I often have to shake my head at decisions that are made out there, but I don't interfere with their decision-making process on that side. He does have a very valid point. And it's very frustrating to see taxpayers' money going to waste, and the initial reason as to why I got into this business in the first place.
SULLIVAN: Some of the latest - one of your latest products is actually creating a lot of buzz in the military material community. You call is SMARTCAMO. What is that?
CRAMER: SMARTCAMO is a material that can actually change color from a woodland coloration, so you have a camouflage that starts off in the woodland. And it can actually transition to a desert or transitional or even a very bright colored camouflage that would work well in winter conditions. And so what we want to offer is something that provides the soldier or the item that we're trying to protect, whether it be a tank or aircraft, the ability to not just have the static camouflage on it, but be able to adapt to the surroundings as it moves through from one environment to another.
And for a rapid deployment force, this becomes very effective for them to carry as little weight as possible. The only problem with this technology is it requires a battery source and...
SULLIVAN: I was going to say, it sounds like something that needs a battery.
CRAMER: Yeah. Yeah. And it's a limitation that we looked at. And we've actually come up with something else called Quantum Stealth. And the name implies that quantum technology is used. And it - the idea behind it actually came about from an experiment that I was doing with quantum science. However, the technology is not quantum. We have figured out a way to actually bend light around the target. And I can...
CRAMER: ...hear millions of people out there rolling their eyes, saying you can't do that.
SULLIVAN: No way.
CRAMER: My grandfather had actually told me through the years of me working with him, if you're looking for a solution, don't look for the multi-million dollar technology to come out of a university. Quite often, you can do the hybrid approach and come up - meld something that you've come up with with something that's already out there to meet the requirement. And that's exactly what we've done here. It is - the SMARTCAMO for a soldier would probably cost $1,000 per uniform, very, very expensive. At the Quantum Stealth, you're probably looking at something that's $100 or less. And so not only have we surpassed what the SMARTCAMO was capable of doing, but we've also brought the cost down on that one. The Canadian government...
SULLIVAN: Well, I can promise you that everybody who's listening is going to be keeping an eye out for your ability to bend light and see if that comes into fruition, because that would be extremely exciting. Guy Cramer is president and CEO of HyperStealth Biotechnology Corporation. And he joined us from the studios of CBC in Vancouver. Guy, thank you so much for talking to us today.
CRAMER: Thank you for having me.
SULLIVAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. And Joe Palca will be here for a look at NASA's Juno mission to Jupiter, launching next month, and at Curiosity, our new rover soon headed to Mars. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan in Washington. Tony Cox will be here to host on Monday.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.